The year was 2011 and Dinesh Narzary would begin his day making tea at his stall in Bodoland, Assam. In his spare time, he would collect fallen areca nut (supari) leaf sheaths, considered agricultural waste, for supplying to a buyer in Barpeta. The peak season for collecting these sheaths is from April to June in Assam and Narzary did it for two seasons.
The buyer, Tamul Plates, would process areca nut sheaths to make biodegradable and eco-friendly leaf plates. Tamul then helped Narzary to begin collecting these sheaths from others in his village.
Providing sustainable livelihoods to over 10,000 people
About 70 kilometres from Barpeta, in the Bamunigaon village of Kamrup district, a women’s self-help group is also running its own sheath processing unit. They received training and technical support from Tamul to set up the areca nut leaf manufacturing unit in December 2018. Within a few months, their turnover crossed Rs 3.5 lakh. Now, with male family members of some women returning from other states due to the Coronavirus lockdown and helping with the work, the plate production has gone up. And these people don’t plan to go back to cities for work again.
Tamul has so far promoted more than 500 leaf plate manufacturing units across the northeastern states (except Sikkim and Manipur), providing livelihoods to around 5,000 people by either collecting sheaths from them or marketing their products. Another 5,000 people are manufacturing and marketing their products directly without support from Tamul.
In a region where employment opportunities are limited due to lack of industrialisation and poor connectivity, areca nut leaf plate making has given livelihood to over 10,000 people.
“When we started in 2004, it was evident that resources were available in rural India but there wasn’t much value addition being done, especially in the North East. Commodities were not being turned into ready products,” says Arindam Dasgupta, Co-founder and CEO of Tamul Plates.
In 2004, he, along with friends Anirban Gupta and Nidhi Arora, started Dhriiti – The Courage Within, an NGO that supports micro enterprises in the north-eastern region. “We saw a lot of scope of working in the North East if we could add value to natural resources and create local employment. With this view we started Dhriiti,” he says.
What does Tamul’s work involve?
Tamul’s work involves collection of sheaths, processing them into plates and marketing them. It buys products from many other local units, which do not market plates directly.
Tamul deploys its vehicles for sheath collection from villages while some collectors deliver them at the unit. The leaves are then dried in the sun. “We also use an indigenous dryer and on the day of the production, the leaves are soaked in water for about 5 minutes to make them moist and elastic,” he says.
The leaves are brushed and cleaned in a water tank. Then they are put into the adjacent tank with clean water, washed again and drained. While the leaves are still soft, they are taken to the machine where a temperature is set for the two dyes between which the leaf is put.
The heat and pressure from the dyes turns sheaths into plates. Each machine has six types of dyes which give various shapes and sizes to the plates.
It sold 35 lakh plates in fiscal year 2019, including the plates it procures under marketing arrangement with other micro enterprises, says Dasgupta.
While 65 percent of the sales are domestic, the rest is exported to wholesalers abroad. “The demand has grown steadily, especially in the last two-three years, due to the ban on plastic and an increasing awareness about eco-friendly products,” he says.
Areca nut plates take 60 days for bio-degradation and are environment-friendly. Due to this, the overseas demand is rising steadily.
Spreading the benefits by providing steady incomes
Tamul has been a steady source of employment in the area.
More work translates into higher wages for workers. “We get annual salary increments,” says Pankaj Das, who started working with Tamul as an office boy in 2008. Today, he manages the packaging and production team.
“I was interested in computer operations while working as an office boy. Sir (Dasgupta) helped me learn and I began to maintain the inventory of raw material, finished products, factory records etc,” he says.
Apart from Das, thousands of others have also benefited from Tamul’s expertise. “A leaf plate manufacturing unit can be started at an investment of Rs 50,000 and go up to Rs 12 lakh,” Dasgupta says.
“We have promoted more than 500 units across the northeastern states except Manipur and Sikkim. We work either directly or in partnership with government or private agencies,” he adds.
Tamul has designed the machines to suit local conditions. “We source parts from manufacturers, assemble them and supply them to those who want to set up their own units. We train them, provide help with financing and also offer 100 percent product buyback guarantee. Then there are those who take knowledge from us and work independently,” Dasgupta says.
The lockdown resulting in restricted exports has affected demand but Tamul hopes to close this fiscal with sales of 40 lakh plates. “In FY 22, we hope to sell over a crore plates. We are receiving queries from across the world and the demand is huge,” he adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)